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It’s been called the Jeanaissance. It’s also been called the Smartaissance. Whatever you call it, the term has taken hold. When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure how to feel. Does “Smartaissance” suggest a rebirth of Jean Smart’s career? Because that seems insane. Jean has been working consistently for 35 years! Or is it, as in the revived interest in classical antiquity of the Renaissance, a revived interest in Jean Smart? See that, too, feels hard to believe. Especially since, for me, Jean Smart has always been the highlight of whatever she’s in. From Frasier to Fargo, I always want more Jean Smart. (I mean, The Brady Bunch Movie, anyone?!).
But speaking of the Renaissance, the artists that personify the period — Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, et cetera — are all men. Not that there weren’t equally talented women making art. They were, too … but were busy being relegated to the margins. And that’s my guest column in ARTnews. Actually, it’s already been written. In 1974, art historian Linda Nochlin asked in her article of the same name, “Why have there been no great woman artists?” The answer, unsurprisingly, was systemic. She examines, among other things, the notion that greatness is equated with manliness. This idea that the arts, comedy among them, are historically less welcoming to those not born white and male, is a central theme of Hacks. Nearly six years ago, my co-creators Lucia Aniello and Jen Statsky and I were discussing the many incredible female comedians who never got their due in the way their male contemporaries did. And out of that discussion, Hacks was born — a show about two women of different generations both cast aside and relegated to the Las Vegas desert. We wanted to explore how society so easily dismisses women while celebrating mediocre white men. (Full disclosure: I myself am a mediocre white man.)
So we created Deborah Vance; a larger-than-life comedy diva and Vegas institution — exploring her life offstage and, specifically, the pain and loneliness that made her who she is. We wanted to make something grounded and real that, like life, was both funny and emotional. So when it came time to cast the part, we needed an actor who could play those poignant moments but also be funny enough to believably play a comedian and land hard jokes. In short, we needed an actor with incredible range who could do it all. Oh, and she had to be in her late 60s and preferably not into QAnon. That’s already a pretty short list, sure, but for us, Jean Smart was always at the very top of it. Fortunately for us, she said yes.
Jean disappears into the role, and it feels like the part she was born to play. Which is ironic because in many ways, Jean is nothing like Deborah Vance; who, after years of leaning into self-deprecating humor and telling the same jokes to Vegas tourists, has become hardened and stale. Jean is the opposite. She’s quick and kind, funny and fresh in ways that most young people aren’t, much less those who have been making comedy for 35 years. And that’s true even off-camera. After shooting a scene where Ava, the young writer she hires, has a sex dream about her, Jean whipped out a prop cigarette as a bit and walked around the set like a lothario after a conquest. The next day, when she and her co-star, Hannah Einbinder, got to set, Jean said to her: “Huh. No flowers …”
She’s just liquid-funny. Comedy is supposed to be fleeting, a young person’s game. As you mature, you tend to age out. But Jean has only gotten sharper and funnier at every turn. I can only hope to be like her when I grow up.
It’s been a master class watching Jean bring Deborah Vance to life. She has elevated every scene, brought such depth to each emotional turn and landed every joke — often with the flourish of her character’s now-signature laugh. We’ve all loved Jean in comedies and dramas, but to watch her showcase all she can do at once has been thrilling. I guess that’s the Smartaissance for me: Jean has been so good, for so long, in so many different things — it was really all of us who needed to catch up. The world was ready to see her in a leading role that allows her to display the full range of her genius. And in that way, Jean Smart is like Deborah Vance — a woman who has worked prolifically but who society could have appreciated even more deeply than we already did. Luckily, we are now. And much like the character she plays, I think Jean’s just getting warmed up.
This story first appeared in the June 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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